For the 'Underemployed' twenty-somethings, sex is recession and life-stage proof

October 17, 2012

MTV’s Underemployed is the last of three pilots for the fall television season shot in Chicago. Still, I was a little surprised when the show opened with shots of the Windy City at night. It was so buzzy, so teeming with energy that I admit I expected it to pan to some shots of the City That Never Sleeps, a location all too familiar in movies and TV.

The creators might not want you to think that this is New York, but they’re definitely stressing themes usually found in shows set there. Namely the “Oh man, I have no idea what I’m doing” vibe so commonly felt by young people. The pilot episode of Underemployed opens with a few friends roaming the streets of downtown Chicago, celebrating their graduation, interspersed with scenes of the valedictorian/wannabe novelist of the group writing her novel at her laptop.“They were young and hopeful, lucky and sweet. They’d just finished college and were ready to jump into life,” she tells us via her screen and voiceover.

“Hey guys I wish it could be now forever!” yells a friend.
But now turns into then almost as quickly as hello turns into goodbye.

This earnestness quickly crashes down with a reality check a year later: the valedictorian/novelist Sofia (Michelle Ang) is working with donuts, the wannabe model Miles (Diego Boneta) is stripping in offices, the advertising guru Daphne (Sarah Habel) is shilling -- and eating -- dog food at her agency as an unpaid intern, the singer/songwriter Raviva (Inbar Lavi) isn’t opening for Sleigh Bells but tending bar (pregnant), and Lou (Jared Kusnitz) is canvassing. There’s only one person represented from their graduating class who’s doing “well," a tangential character who is clerking and going to law school at night.

Underemployed gets one thing that’s definitely true in recession-era and competitive-minded America: its title. That’s the focus of young people today. That’s what defines you.

“I’m just working. You know, paying the rent. Underachieving,” says Sofia the novelist. This is a generation of kids who pretend they’re “funemployed” but would rather be anything but. On that note, Underemployed is a little too upbeat in tone, considering the depressing topics it covers. That happens to be an MTV specialty, one they’ve mastered with reality TV shows from Jersey Shore to The Real World. What’s most interesting, unrealistic and consistent with the channel's other programming, is how the only real commodity for these twenty-somethings is sex.

Take Daphne. She goes from wanting a job, to being okay with being called “smart and pretty” by her boss, who kisses her in broad daylight after he says “nothing” is happening between them and he’s not sure when he can pay her, and then has sex with her in a car. The one laughable moment of this exchange is when Daphne asks, “Is this, like, a normal lunch for you?” For the sake of HR departments across the nation, hopefully not.

Daphne essentially blackmails herself into a job, because Underemployed teaches us that “the real world...is selling out.” More specificially, finding your value in your youthful, sexual being. Raviva returns to Chicago pregnant with Lou's child, quickly making it clear that music is on the backburner and her ability to childbear front and center. Sofia gets uncomfortably hit on by an older lesbian, but that quickly turns around, who awakens her sexuality and with whom she has sex with for the first time. And Miles continually finds as much as he wants to be a legtimate model-slash-actor, his only worth is when he's in his underwear serving drinks.

It’d be one thing if this constant emphasis on sex was a part of larger commentary on the abilities and aspirations of these characters, but they don’t feel all together that nuanced, especially as a group; their dynamic is mildly cringe-inducing, with only a few of the jokes coming across the way real young people talk. And the Carrie Bradshaw-esque voiceovers from Sofia reek:

“You grow up wanting a sort of kind of life, a dream of a life, but by the time you get there, that life is gone. You have to make your own life, and you have to make it your way. everyone goes through this.”

And:

“If life is just about working and earning money, we’re all screwed. But if life is about living, none of my friends are underemployed.”

What’s odd is that the show seems to be trying to prove exactly the opposite of that life-is-what-you-make-of-it mantra. If anything, the pilot wants to make the audience believe that life is a smack in the face and you've got to ignore what you really want.

In the preview for the coming season, one of the characters asks, “How do you give yourself over to work so much that you succeed but not so much that you end up becoming like a total whore?” It’s unclear if Underemployed meant us to take that literally, but it sure seems that way.

MTV's Underemployed airs Tuesday's at 9 CST.